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Under the Turks (1517-1917)


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"Through the tree of the Cross you healed the sourness of the tree and opened heaven for mankind. Lord, glory to you!" - (Byzantine Liturgy)

During this period the centre of Islamic power was transferred from the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish armada wreaked havoc in the whole Mediterranean. They conquered the island of Rhodes and occupied the Near East. They fought battles against the Christian European powers. They were driven back in 1565 when for three months they laid siege to Malta which at the time had passed under the rule of the Knights of St. John. Costantinople now became the seat of the new Turkish power.

We present the following events not only for the historic chronology based on documents and facts, but above all to help us understand how much has been achieved today through mutual dialogue and respect between the Christian fraternities living at the Holy Sepulchre. It is not a slap in the face but a pat on the back!

"The concern for restoring unity involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the talent of each, whether it be exercised in daily living or in theological and historical studies. This concern itself already reveals to some extent the bond of brotherhood existing among all Christians, and it leads toward full and perfect unity, in accordance with what God in his kindness wills" (Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio - Decree on Ecumenism, 5)

Under the new Turkish dominion the Greek community, being direct subjects of the Ottoman Empire, tried to get possession of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Entering Costantinople in 1453, Mohammed II proclaimed the Greek Patriarch of Costantinople the religious and civil head of all the Oriental Christians resident in his Empire.

Patriarch Theophanius, with the help of archdeacon Gregory, obtained in 1633 a firman ante-dated to the time of Omar (638) which conferred to him the ownership of the Grotto of the Nativity, Mount Calvary and the Stone of Unction at the Holy Sepulchre. Gregory confessed the forgery, and the Western Powers, and Pope Urban VII, succeeded in having the firman withdrawn in 1636.

It was a time when money and gold were valued most and the meanders of intrigues made the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a prized trophy which the sultan could sell to the one offering the most money! In fact between 1630 and 1637, under Murad IV (1623-1640), various parts of the Holy Sepulchre changed hands six times. The Franciscans would not have been able to sustain this costly battle had it not been for France which became the official protector of the Holy Sites and their custodians.

The silver lamps

The silver lamps in front of the Holy Sepulchre
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During the imprisonment of the Franciscans (1537-1540), the Copts obtained permission from the Turkish government to erect an altar behind the Aedicula of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Coptic Chapel

The Coptic Chapel behind the Aedicula of the Holy Sepulchre
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The earthquake of 1545 shook the belfry and a part of it fell onto the baptistery underneath.

In 1555 Fr. Boniface of Ragusa, Custos of the Holy Land, obtained the permission to restore parts of the basilica and completely renew the Aedicula. This was a major restoration and the friar left a detailed description of the work carried out. It was the first time since 1009, when the tomb was destroyed under the hammers of al-Hakim's soldiers, that the bare rock of the tomb was to be seen again by human eyes. In fact he writes that on 27 August 1555 at 4.00 pm the rock-bed on which laid the body of Our Lord was uncovered. Works started and:
"pulling down the existing structure, there came in front of our eyes the tomb of the Lord clearly dug out in the rock: in it there were visible the figures of two angels with one of them carrying an inscription which said "He has risen! He is not here" while the other, pointing to the tomb, proclaimed "See the place where they laid him". The figures of these angels, as soon as they came in contact with the air, vanished almost completely. When, for necessity, we had to remove one of the alabaster slabs which covered the Sepulchre, placed there by Saint Helen in order to be able to celebrate the holy sacrifice of Mass, there appeared to us that ineffable place in which laid for three days the Son of Man; "ut plane coelos apertos videre tunc nobis, et illis, qui nobiscum aderant omnibus videremur". The place, which had been soaked with the precious blood and with the mixture of ointment with which he was ointed for burial and from where spread to everywhere glowing light as if they were the luminous rays of the sun, was uncovered by us, venerated with devotional moans, with spiritual joy and with tears together with those present (there were in fact not a few Christians, both Western and Eastern), who full of heavenly devotion, some shed tears, other profoundly excited, all were astonished and in prey of a sort of ecstasy. At the centre of the holy place we found a piece of wood, which had been placed there and wrapped in a precious piece of cloth: as soon as we took it in our hands with great devotion and kissed it, in contact with the air, the cloth (consumed itself immediately) leaving only some gold threads. On that piece of precious wood there were some inscriptions, but so consumed by time that you could not make out a complete phrase out of those words, even if on one membrane we could read in Latin capital letters HELENA MAGNI.."

Perspective view of the Aedicula

Perspective view of the Aedicula
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In 1644 the Georgians, unable to sustain the expenses in the intricate deals with the Turkish authorities, left definitively the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, followed, a few years later, by the Abissinians. The Franciscans acquired most of the property which had been abandoned by the other fraternities.

The question about the possession of the site became even more acute when the Patriarch Dositheus (1669-1707) secured in 1676 another firman, giving him exclusive possession of the Holy Sepulchre. Due pressure from the European Powers, Turkey appointed a special tribunal to examine the documents presented by both sides.

The result was a firman of 1690, by which the Franciscans were to be reintegrated as they had been prior to 1630. The sentence was solemnly published in Jerusalem on June 25, 1690 in the presence of the authorities and the contending parties. On June 29th the Franciscan Custos, with a solemn Mass, took again possession of the Holy Sepulchre and other sites within the Basilica.

A view of the Altar of the Nailing

A view of the Altar of the Nailing to the Holy Cross on Calvary
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Towards the end of the XVII century the cone shaped dome over the Anastasis built by Constantine Monomacus started giving in. In 1691 the Friars applied for the necessary permits from Turkey to repair the damages. Permission was only granted in 1719 and knowing that such works could easily be suspended by the Ottoman authorities, the did their best to perform a rapid intervention by employing 500 men who where guarded by 300 soldiers! Among the works carried out were the dome, the stairway to the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross and the Stone of the Unction. At the same time the Armenians restructured the stairway of the Chapel of St. Helen and the Greeks pulled down the upper two storeys of the belfry. The Aedicula of the Holy Sepulchre was restored in 1728.

A view of the Stone of the Unction

A view of the Stone of the Unction
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On Palm Sunday 1767 the Greeks entered the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and created havoc, accusing the Friars of all kind of intrigues. The Ottoman Porte, without inquiry, issued a firman giving the Greeks possession of the Basilica of Bethlehem, the Tomb of the Virgin, and joint possession with the Latins of parts of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Despite the appeals of the Pope Clement XIII to all the Western Powers, the firman stood and the possession of the Holy Places has undergone only minor changes since then.

The Altar of the Katholicon

The Altar of the Katholicon
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The nineteenth century opened with the great fire of 1808 in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, causing extensive damage to the site. Due to the Napoleonic wars in Europe the Friars did not find enough money to get the necessary permissions from Turkey to perform the restoration. Russia, now patroness of the Orthodox community, obtained permission for the Orthodox community to perform this restoration.

The Armenians during a procession

The Armenians during a procession
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In 1860 the French Ambassador at the Porte, General Aupick, in the name of the Catholic countries, demanded the restoration of the rights of the Franciscans held prior to 1767. The Ottoman Government was ready to acquiesce, when the Russian Czar, Nicholas, intervened and ordered the Sultan to make no change in the existing state of affairs under the threat of a breach of diplomatic relations. Turkey was forced to issue in 1862 a firman directing that the Status Quo (i.e. that of 1767) be maintained.



© Text prepared by John Abela ofm based on articles and research by Virgilio Corbo ofm, Michele Piccirillo ofm and Eugenio Alliata ofm
Hi-Res pictures prepared by Michael Olteanu - Other pictures prepared by John Abela ofm and Michael Olteanu
B&W pictures courtesy of SBF-Jerusalem Archives - A joint project betweeen the Franciscans and Christusrex

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Created / Updated Wednesday, December 26, 2001 at 20:31:38 by John Abela ofm
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